JT Daniels stood behind the fray, helmet on and his hands on his hips, waiting dutifully for his turn.
As a wide-eyed freshman carrying the weight of tremendous expectation, Daniels came into camp a year ago hoping to lay any claim he could on the quarterback position. Now, as a sophomore incumbent, with a convincing claim made over the course of 11 games last season, Daniels stood in a not-so-different position Tuesday, watching closely as each of USC’s three other quarterbacks, fighting for the job he once held, took equal reps at the helm ahead of him.
The order in which the Trojans quarterbacks took their places under center mattered less than the principle of their arrangement. Daniels, who came to USC as the nation’s top-rated quarterback recruit, is still expected to become the starter. Until that decision is officially made, however, the directive to USC’s quarterbacks during camp has been that the competition between them is wide open, and the reps will remain equal.
As strange as that arrangement may seem on the surface, it’s just fine with Daniels.
“[Coach Clay Helton] said it at the beginning of spring, and he’s maintained his position,” Daniels said. “Everybody on the team is up for competition. There’s a lot of new coaching. It feels like there’s a whole new culture change with the team. You have to compete every day.”
Helton suggested at Pac-12 media day that USC might use every practice available to them ahead of the season, before naming a starter.
But Graham Harrell, USC’s new offensive coordinator, noted on Tuesday that the offense probably can’t afford a quarterback competition dragging on quite that long.
“You’ll let them compete for a while, though,” Harrell said. “We’re four practices in. When you’ve only gone four practices, you have a limited amount of film to go on. We have to figure out who’s going to be playing best come Aug. 31. Obviously, you’re going to make a decision on who the guy is before that point.”
Right now, that appears to be Daniels, who coaches and teammates have suggested looks “more relaxed” in Harrell’s wide-open, up-tempo offense. Daniels himself said that his understanding of USC’s new, simplified offensive system has grown substantially since the spring.
But as a competition continues on for the foreseeable future, Harrell and the rest of USC’s staff have challenged Daniels to do more than simply grasp the offense. In the spring, Helton and Harrell told Daniels that he needed to prove himself further as a leader.
Of all the quarterbacks, Daniels “probably had the most room to improve” in that regard, Harrell noted, “but he’s probably taken the biggest steps in that aspect.”
Daniels isn’t the only quarterback who’s taken a noticeable leap since the spring. Big-armed, early enrollee Kedon Slovis has turned heads over the first week of camp. If his impressive performance continues, it’s possible Slovis could have a chance to move up the depth chart — perhaps even past more experienced options in sophomore Jack Sears and redshirt junior Matt Fink.
“He’s been throwing darts,” Harrell said of the freshman, who gained 15 pounds between spring practice and fall camp. “That’s the Kedon we saw all spring. He’s got a special arm. He can make throws that a lot of people can’t make.”
The same could be said for Daniels, who had his share of picturesque throws again on Tuesday.
Senior linebacker Jordan Iosefa dislocated his patella and suffered cartilage damage in his knee, Helton said. Iosefa had surgery Tuesday and is expected to miss at least four to six weeks.
Judging by Helton’s reaction, the prognosis could’ve been much worse.
“He’s one of the warriors of our team,” Helton said. “I’m very happy for him.”